News Column

How to Arm Yourself Against CryptoLocker Virus

December 6, 2013

The Mercury (South Africa)

I'm about to ask you to do something that will take just a few minutes of your day. I am sure some of you will go ahead and do this. I am just as certain that many more of you will choose not to.

Of those who do what I ask, within a week there will be perhaps a hundred or more who will be extremely glad they did. Within a month, that number will have grown. And for some unlucky souls who decide to postpone this task for another day, there will be nothing but bitter regret.

Here's my request: without delay, please switch on your computer, browse to wherever you keep your important files, and make a back-up copy of them to a suitable device.

Don't wait another minute. Dust off that external hard drive or USB and bring your backups up to date. And, horrors of horrors, if you haven't got a back-up procedure, don't wait a month to make this resolution: start one immediately.

Your data is only as safe as your last good back-up. This was never more evident than a few weeks ago when the receptionist at one of my corporate customers opened an innocuous e-mail that appeared to be from one of the couriers she regularly contacts. Only, the message wasn't actually from that courier, and it certainly wasn't innocuous.

Within a few hours, without any indication, the company's main shared drive containing the bulk of its business data had been encrypted: scrambled by a particularly nasty virus known as CryptoLocker.

An alarming message popped up on this poor woman's screen, warning her that all her files were now encrypted, and in order for her to access them again, a ransom of $300 (R3 000) was payable.

Furthermore, a countdown had started ... she had just hours to pay or risk losing her employer's data.

Cyber warfare

Her tale reads like some sort of cyber-warfare thriller, and many people faced with this message may have dismissed it as an alarmist scare tactic, typical of the many fake anti-virus software scams that surface from time to time.

Unfortunately, CryptoLocker is real, and breaking the encryption difficult. A rapidly growing menace across the globe, CryptoLocker has already destroyed millions of files, yet the criminals behind it may never be caught.

There are reports that those who have paid the ransom via a lengthy process involving an anonymous online currency called bitcoin have been given the key required to decrypt and retrieve their files. This apparent show of good faith by the software's authors is possibly to encourage more desperate people to pay up, although there are also reports of some who have paid and not received the key.

The UK's National Crime Agency and the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) have both issued alerts about Crypto-Locker and a quick search on Google will confirm the alarming spread of this menace. CryptoLocker is a particularly nasty example of of malware that has been dubbed "ransomware" - for obvious reasons. Ransomware is not new: cyber-crooks have been extorting people for decades, but the sheer callousness of CryptoLocker surprised me.

Fortunately, my customer's tale had a happy ending. All the data was replaced using the previous night's backup. The infection was removed and the lady at the middle of it all got back to work, much relieved.

There are lots of good reasons to back-up data: hard drives crash, computers get stolen, files get accidentally overwritten ... all sorts of things can go wrong. If you don't have a backup, you're out in the cold.

If you don't know how to back up your computer, contact a professional or do your own research. I will also help with some tips next week.

If you do back up your files and it turns out you're grateful you did - go on, tell me using You may encourage someone else to protect themselves before it's too late.

The Mercury

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Original headline: Take a minute and arm yourself against viruses

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Source: (c) 2013 Independent Newspapers (Pty) Limited. All rights strictly reserved. Provided by, an company